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China suppresses coverage of coronavirus as cases rise

News outlets told to go with 'positive' stories; public anger now more aimed at high-level leaders, not local authorities


AS THE number of coronavirus infections in China continues to surge without any sign of slowing down, the communist government has clamped down on the news media and the Internet, signalling an effort to control the narrative about a crisis that has become a once-in-a-generation challenge for leaders in Beijing.

Chinese health officials said on Thursday that 563 people had died from the virus, up from 490 people the day before, and that there were 28,018 confirmed cases of infection. Thousands more are being infected every day, and many Chinese fear that the virus' spread is not being adequately controlled.

With frustrations running high across the country, China's leaders appear to be strengthening information controls after a brief spell in which news organisations were able to report thoroughly on the crisis, and many negative comments about the official response went uncensored online.

In recent days, both state-run news media and more commercially-minded outlets have been told to focus on positive stories about virus relief efforts, according to three people at Chinese news organisations who spoke on the condition of anonymity in a discussion of internal directives.

Internet platforms have removed a range of articles that suggest shortcomings in the Chinese government's response, or are otherwise negative about the outbreak.

Local officials have also cracked down on what they call online "rumours" about the virus. China's public security ministry this week lauded such efforts, which have continued even after one person who was reprimanded for spreading rumours turned out to be a doctor sounding the alarm about early cases of the illness.

The Chinese government has shifted its strategy for information control in response to the changing nature of the public's discontent, said Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

In the early days of the crisis, online vitriol had largely been directed at the local authorities. Now, more of the anger is being aimed at higher-level leadership, and there seems to be more of it overall, he said.

Late last month, for instance, after The New England Journal of Medicine published a research paper about the virus, Chinese web users pounced on the fact that several of the authors worked for the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, saying they should have been informing the public, not furthering their research careers. NYTIMES